Saturday, April 27, 2013

Violence and Salvation

The Source of Our Salvation

Paul tells us that Jesus is “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty”, Jesus says, “I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life."
Which brings me to a story;
There once was a family traveling across the desert. They are near death from thirst. They happen to come across an oasis but they are unable to find the water. There is a child with the family whose acute sense of smell detects moisture and with considerable energy the child explores the oasis until at last, he finds a cave that leads to water. He signals to his family to follow him into the cave and there they drink to their full, they luxuriate in the plentiful supply of water. They bathe, they wash, they fill their water skins and journey on in joy and gratitude toward their destination. On their way, they leave a stone to mark the way to the spring. In succeeding centuries other families, by the hundreds and thousands come by the same oasis until eventually a great cathedral is built on the spot marking the presence of the spring. Yet the people began to forget where the source of this water was. They were preoccupied more with the building they had erected and with the life giving spring that brought that building into existence in the first place. The spring was lost to them. The cathedral was abandoned and it began to fall into disrepair. At last, more time passed another family came to the oasis and they too were near death for thirst. The child among them ventured into the cathedral and her acute sense of smell detected moisture. She found her way to the spring where the water was. She too signaled to her family. They then drank, and washed and filled their water skins and continued on. 

What then is the source of our salvation?
What is this “living water”?

For one thing it has to do with our connectedness to God. That connection centers around our ability to respond to God’s love for us by loving God in return. But there is a brokenness in that connection. Sin and Death break the bonds of love that exist between us and God. There is an of abundance Sin. We read about it daily in our newspapers or watch it unfold before our very eyes on the television. There it is in all its amazing panoply of ugliness; a veritable smorgasbord of sin. Warfare, bombings in the public square, carnage in the public name it we do it. Then there are those little private sins we commit against God and one another on a fairly regular basis. And if that isn’t enough there are all those little bad habits we develop along the way; lots of things that are just plain not good for us.

We seek those things that destroy God’s creatures, ourselves and others and God’s creation as well. We seek our own will instead of God’s. Sin, as one of my theology professors once quipped, is the only doctrine of faith we can prove. All others teaching of the church must be taken on faith. Ultimately, I am not interested in Sin. Well, maybe that’s not quite true. I think the truth is we’re all enticed by many things that we all know are not good for us. But at the deepest level of my life I thirst desperately for my Salvation. 

Because what also separates me from my God is Death. Suffering and Death and the Specter of both all too often raise a shadow upon life all too often. And there we are. Helpless it seems against the reality of our own helplessness and weakness.

Where then is my Salvation?
Where is the Spring of Water of which Jesus speaks from which I may drink so that I too may live forever within the heart of God.

I suspect that this Salvation will come from Baptism. Because once I find out where that well within rises to my joy, I will live again. I will be forgiven of all my sins, and the inevitability of suffering and death will then be set within the context of the Victory of Jesus on that Great Easter Day!

For the truth of the matter is that what breaks the barrier between me and God is the love that God bears toward us. And that love is forever. And once I find this way to God nothing in all creation can separate me from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

And even though the bonds of sin are strong the bond of forgiveness is stronger still. And God is the final Victor. God has the final say. God says we are forgiven. God says that we may come to his spring of water where we may drink freely, bathe and luxuriate in the refreshing spring of God’s love and then live forever.
So then Jesus completes the picture; don’t just love God, "Love one another". “This is how they will know that you are my disciples, that you love one another.” One member of my Bible Study group on Tuesday said as we studied these words; "That is possible only up to a point" And another worshipper at the Villa asked me "What do I do about my neighbor? I've never had a problem like this before. She is rude. She is hurtful. She is hateful. I don’t know what to do.” I told her, I suspect that the problem is within her, not you. Go on loving her the best way you know how.

Now, I confess to you before God and the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and all the other angels too, that I had a parishioner once who developed a strong dislike for me, can you imagine! She came to the 8am service and sat in the front row with her brother. The two of them looked like the two in “American Gothic” except that there was no pitchfork between them, at least none that was visible. But she was at ease in speaking unpleasantly toward me after church and I never got used to that. I finally worked up the nerve to speak back to her one day and asked her to keep a civil tongue in her head. At last she said to me on another day “I think, in view of Christian Charity, that we should agree not to speak to one another from now on”. I replied; “That my dear woman is the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me”. 

And so it goes. As it turned out the poor woman was developing a terminal heart condition, one of a physical sort, one that reflected some of the emotional heart trouble that plagued her all her life.

When I visited her at the hospital, she seemed to have a turn of heart then. We both shared a tear, asked a prayer, and commended ourselves both to God’s keeping and God’s love. The ice between us melted that day.

You see, it is as Sallie McFague once said: "We come from God and we return to God. In the meantime, we live in the presence of God, even when we do not know or acknowledge God. The entire universe reflects the Glory of God, each and every particular creature and thing in its own particular, concrete and unique way. Creation is a kaleidoscope of mind boggling diversity; a myriad of outrageously extravagant species who altogether make up the heart, body and mind of God. Each creature praises God by simply being itself, and by being fully alive."

No one ever promised us that being a follower of Jesus would be easy. You will remember how it all worked out for him. Yet the cross was not the final truth of Jesus. 

The final Truth of Jesus is the love of God. Therefore we are to love one another. Just Friday evening Muslims, Jews and Christians met together at the Islamic Center of Boston to make visible God’s love for us all. Imagine that! It takes courage to love God and to love one another.

But we will discover that as we do this very thing, we will be like a family that travels across the desert, near death from thirst. God will quench that thirst with this abundant fountain that leads to life; the endless and bountiful fountain of the Love of God.

Fr Paul

Friday, April 19, 2013

A Prayer for Boston

Pray for Us!

Dear friends,

Given the ongoing events in my beloved home town, I am aware now more than at any other time in my life that we are all involved as fellow combatants in a battle between good and evil.

Given the events in Texas, we are all reminded of the vulnerability of life, and that at any time, for any number of reasons, a violent and sudden end or change to our life can occur.

Thus it is that we all stand in the need of prayer.

My son David lives in Dorchester and knows of the Richards family because of his work with an inner-city non profit. The Richards family lost an 8 year old in the Patriot's Day explosion and the mom and sister are still in serious condition in a Boston hospital. Mr Richards was involved in the revitalization of a tough old section of Ashmont and Peabody Square where one of our great Anglo-Catholic congregations is located, All Saints Church.

David also knows the organist of St. Peter's Church, Cambridge. He lives in Watertown on the same street where the fire fight erupted in the early hours of Friday morning. We are all intimately connected with one another in the ongoing battle between good and evil.

Today at St. Gabriel's Mary Boggs preached a magnificent sermon on young adult ministry. She is a woman of enormous courage and spirit. She is from New England and is a runner. She had much to say about the events of the last week. I thank God for her witness to young people today.

The ancient church taught us at the outset that there are only two ways; "The way that leads to life and the way that leads to death". (The Didache or the Teachings) The events of the past week show us how important our work of inspiring our young people really is. This is what Mary is seeking to do in her ministry. The work of annual "Vocare" weekends is designed to help young people to discern their calling in life.

On the events of the past week, allow me to share these thoughts;

I have never armed myself with anything more than a Swiss Army knife. I don't even do that any more given the fact that I fly a lot and these knives are now not permitted. I have left my protection up to the local police. Obviously their ability to do their job is compromised by the ubiquity of heavy weapons of all sorts. 

My weaponry comes from scripture. I have always loved this scripture. Notice that all this armor comes from within.

"Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints."
~Ephesians 6:10-18

Put on the whole armor of God.

Another resource is a beautiful Celtic Litany for Peace I have recently been using to calm myself. Allow me to share it with you.

A Celtic Litany for Peace

We have prayed for peace.
Unknowing of what we truly ask.
Peace cannot come into the house
Where love is unwelcome.
Peace cannot come into the land
Where injustice and oppression live.
Peace cannot enter or be fostered
In souls that still engage in dispute.
Peace does not come meekly and unarmed.
Peace needs the pathway of our will to change.
Peace will not come to the troubled world
Unless we first invite it under our own roof.

Peace, I am disarming myself of the need to be right;
Peace, I am disclaiming my need to feel superior;
Peace, I am dissolving my contract with fear.
Peace, I am removing my armor of anger;
Peace, I am dismantling my anxious illusions;
Peace, I am ringing down the curtain of my theatre of war;
Peace, I am undoing the locks and bolts.
Of sevenfold Peace, it is I who have kept you out:
Come in and welcome!

~from Caitlin Matthews’ Celtic Devotional.

Finally there is this thought. Tom Shaw, the Bishop of Massachusetts is in Watertown this morning. The church in Watertown is called the Church of the Good Shepherd. How appropriate that the gathering place for our church in a town beset with such violence would dedicate its church to the Good Shepherd. How appropriate that on the Sunday following these events, the Sunday in the church year comes around to Good Shepherd Sunday.

May the Good Shepherd guide, protect, and encourage us to our several callings. And may the Good Shepherd carry those home who are now no longer with us. May the Good Shepherd in all of us continue to minister to the wounds of all those maimed and bereft of their loved ones in Greater Boston and Texas. 

In the meantime; pray for us. We are all in this together.

And may God bless you.

Fr. Paul

Friday, April 12, 2013

Hope for the Church

God Needs You!

Seriously! God does need you. God's people and God's creation needs you!

There is war, violence, suffering, poverty, imprisonment, and a dying planet to save. This is serious business. My children and the host of humanity cry out for an ethical presence from both the sacred and the secular alike.

There is an emerging church out there willing to organize its life around the real needs of human beings and around the care of the planet we live on. Just this week I presented at a clergy conference in the Episcopal Diocese of Montana.

If you ever make your way to an Episcopal Church, chances are you will find a remarkable cast of characters there. The clergy are very intelligent as a rule, they are kind and quite caring of people and their sense of ethics includes concerns about American militarism, poverty, and the created order. Unlike so many of the right wing church, the Episcopal Clergy love science. The congregations they serve are also a cast of characters and often reflect this sense of care for the communities in which they find themselves planted.

It was wonderful to be in the Diocese of Montana with +Frank Brookheart and the clergy there. They are an extraordinary group of people whose commitment to the poor, the prisoner, the created order and to the host of other human needs is a marvel. Not to mention the sheer beauty of the place.

They are clearly committed to organizing the church's life around the needs of the people and the planet. This is a church worth saving and building up in strength.

I love the Episcopal Church and the "Emerging Progressive Church". The Right Wing Evangelical Church has been growing in strength for some years and we in the mainstream have been in the decline. I think it is time to reverse that trend and build up this church once again.

There is a sacred presence in the hearts of many who are becoming impatient with greed and power. 

Many of my friends in the secular world are rightly suspicious of the Church. Many recoil at the word "Christian". It evokes images of the Civic Religion of Rome before the fall when faith was wrapped in national symbols, wealth, power, and exclusive judgmentalism. American Civic Religion is seen as belligerent, bellicose and judgmental. It wraps itself in the flag and calls itself patriotic. It wraps itslef in militarism. Its God is the Almighty Dollar. There is a growing base of the unchurched who feel alienated and hostile to the world of institutional faith. Rome has often betrayed the trust of many.

My purpose in going to this clergy conference was to help make clear how we might better develop and strengthen the church's ministry.

I began with a recollection that the Celtic Church which, many forget, organized itself around the needs the people they lived among. The early monks of Aidan at Holy Island (Lindisfarne) focused their energies on a very practical set of realities.

"Do you have a loved one dying? Bring them here and we'll take care of them"
"Is there illness in the family? Bring them here and we'll tend to them"
"Are you hungry, we will feed you."
"Do you hunger for learning? We are among the best scholars in the world. Learn with us."
"Are you a weary and frightened traveller? We will provide you with safe lodging and hospitality"
"Are you burdened and saddened with life's drudgery and toil? Come here for cheer and merriment"
"Most importantly, are you Baptized? Do you know life has a purpose? Do you know that forgiveness and eternal life begin now? When you come to the waters of Baptism, you come to a wellspring of joy and life. When you come to the Table of Jesus, you come to a banquet which is but a foretaste of the Eternal Banquet?"

The Celts began with the most practical and basic of human needs and worked their way up to the greatest need of all; Forgiveness and Eternal Life. Baptized in water and fed by the Eucharist people came to know God and they in turn began to minister to the real needs of others. And the cycle turns over and over again until the world is filled with the fullness of God.

We remembered these things in Montana.
We celebrated the things being done by the church here now.
And now I challenge the church to recruit the people of God to do the work of God.

For most of my professional ministry I have been studying congregational development and evangelism. But when I bring people to Jesus, I bring them to serve people. Loving God and loving people are one and the same thing.

We face so many dangers:
Militarism, poverty, ecological degradation, and the concentration of wealth just to name a few.
What we need is a strong ethical presence in this world. The emerging Progressive Church can be just such an ethical presence. I am talking much more than personal moral agency. I am talking about the social ethic.

In many ways I find myself more allied with secular humanism than with the far Right Wing or with the Roman church. I am hopeful that Pope Francis will at least look out for the poor. That would be enormous, and probably the best we can hope for now.

For us in the Episcopal Church and in the Emerging Progressive Church there are no distinctions according to race, ethnicity, class, gender or orientation. For us Jesus spent his time recruiting the very same folks who had been "cut off" from the Temple. We're doing our best to fling wide the door so that the church can be "A House of Prayer for ALL People". We are doing our level best at embracing the teachings of Jesus.

So now, how do we build such a church? How do we strengthen it?

Now I shift into my "priest" role. I believe in the priesthood of all believers and let me just highlight some of the work I've been doing to strengthen the church in places I've served. My special thanks to the folks at St. Gabriel's Church in Douglassville, PA who have been a "laboratory" for some of these ministry efforts. The essence of what I presented in Montana is as follows.

The Mechanics of a Membership Drive as an annual congregational effort which doesn't end in the fall but is a continuing year long effort. Frankly when we use the word "Stewardship" we reflexively resist because it is all going to come down to the wallet.

The focus of a Membership Drive is to encourage all to work and pray and give for the spread of the Kingdom of God. This language is drawn directly out of the church's catechism.

The work of the church is much as I have spoke about above; to serve the needs of humankind.

The prayer of the church is to gather week by week as a community and to express our love of God as well as our love of all human beings. We gather at Christ's Holy Table and rejoice in the Risen Christ and his victory over sin and death. (By the way sin is seeking our own will instead of the will of God. And God's will is for the greatest good for the greatest number, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God)

The gifts we give are in proportion to what God gives us. The biblical tithe is 10%. Some give more, some give less. But giving in proportion to what we receive is part of what it is to be a member of the church.

Thus Membership is not about pledging alone. It is about salvaging what we can of our lives and the lives of those we love, and the communities in which we live. It is about salvaging what we can of the planet we live on.

This is a matter of great urgency.

In the context of this presentation I did share this model for New Member Ministry. This is a new idea for many in the mainstream or emerging church. But I believe we need to become more intentional and systematic about our efforts. And we need to sustain these efforts over time. Many churches use this model or variants of it. Here are just a few highlights of the idea.

New Member Ministry is a five step process:
     Visibility: Increase the congregation's visibility though signage, Every Door Direct Mailings, Web pages, blogs etc. God knows I've done all the above and more at all my churches and the efforts result in a flurry of interest.
     Greeting: Fine tune the congregation's greeting skills. Practice good hospitality. Get the names and addresses and make a same day contact by telephone and ask how their fist visit was to the church. See if you can set an appointment to have a cup of coffee and have some conversation.
     Orientation: Help guide folks into the life of the congregation. The Membership Task Force of a Congregation should plan follow up and help establish relationships between newcomers and folks who are already members. You may want to provide classes for newcomers.
     Incorporation: There is a right time and a wrong time to invite folks to consider membership. Some will be clear about that right away. Others will want time to "explore". Give this some thoughtful prayer.
     Apostolic Call: As a general rule you have six months from the first visit to help folks find and involvement mode in the congregation. It can be as simple as ushering or choir, but there is plenty of work to be done. Lots of folks will be attracted to a church that has feeding programs for the poor and the like and they will often want to help out. Encourage that.

In all the church's I've served there has been significant growth. We've also tended to the needs of the young and the old, the poor and the hungry, the homeless or even battered women and their families. The church is not here to "survive". The church is here to serve. St Gabriel's, Douglassville, where I currently serve as interim is a case in point.

I want to thank Bishop Franklin Brookhart and the clergy of the Diocese of Montana for their kind hospitality over the past few days. I hope that what I have shared will help. I only wish all God's churches could awaken to the new hope of servant ministry.

I will end by saying that having been nurtured by the Episcopal Church, I believe we are a very well kept secret...too well kept. By publishing this article, I hope to bring the church to the attention of many. I plan to write some more on this subject. And I stand ready and able to share by learnings with others.

The folks here in Montana told me to tell you; "You had us eating out of your hand!"

Peace be with you,
Fr. Paul

Saturday, April 06, 2013

A Close and Holy Darkness

A Close and Holy Darkness

How can the Spirit speak unless I give it voice?
With what words shall I whisper to this close and holy darkness?
Altar-wise by Owl-light?

The hour sleeps itself away for some
For many work and worry rule the heart
And precious souls suffer long
While mindless greed and power has its day
And seldom sleeps for war and weaponry

There is a dream of Hope and Peace and Love
In The Heart that beats within 
And the Spirit wonders who will to give it voice?
Here in the close and holy darkness?
Altar-wise by Owl-light?

We will awaken to fear and courage
And the war will wage on in all our struggles.

And the Spirit wonders who will give it voice?
Here is the close and holy darkness 
Altar-wise by Owl-light?

And then when we waken
Who will give it voice?

NB Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet, 1914-1953 has used these phrases before. "close and holy darkness" and "Altar-wise by Owl-light". They are used here with gratitude to his spirit moving still.
Hope and Peace and Love
Fr. Paul

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Shhhh!!! Peace, be still!!!

Shhhh!!! Peace, Be With You!!!

Story time with the children! How I love the time with them. Wide eyed, innocent, rambunctious children. We begin with a song to shake out our sillies. "Father Abraham"...some of the children have taken to call me Father Abraham. We all laugh together.

Today there was the story of Easter of course. They told me of their encounters with the Easter Bunny and their new shoes and new clothes. I asked them if they knew what happened to Jesus on Good Friday and Easter. And of course they did.

Then I told them to put on their listening ears and told them of that day when Jesus came among them and said;

"Shhhh! Peace be with you!!!"

I don't know why I added the hushed "Shhhh", but I did. And when I said that the children fell absolutely silent.

I repeated it, like Jesus did.

"Shhhh! Peace be with you!!!"

The silence grew deeper and I found myself amazed by the spirituality of the children and how much they seemed to appreciate the moment. And so I pushed my luck just as Jesus did and so a third time, I quoted Jesus;

"Shhhh! Peace be with you!!!"

It was as if we were all transported to the Upper Room with Jesus and his followers and we were there with them all and with Jesus in our midst.

The children and I were one with Jesus then, if even for just the moment. We were there! And Jesus was here!

The Peace that passes all understanding was there in our midst.

We sang an Easter song then.
I blessed the children and they made their way back to the Day Care classes.
I repeated the exercise for the next class.

Give the children credit. 
They never cease to amaze me with their hunger for God.

Happy Easter,
Fr. Paul